REVIEW: The Lesson

An enjoyably dark one-act play with a stunning lead. Perfect if you fancy an exploration of education and violence – outside of supervisions, that is …

black comedy Drama Pembroke New Cellars pembroke players plays The Lesson Theatre

Ionesco’s wordy power-play is well worth seeing at Pembroke New Cellars. The three-hander, one-room, absurdist play-on-words fit the bare space and aimed the spotlight directly at the performances of the all-female cast.

We are introduced to the Professor who, living only with her worried maid, takes on pupils unquestioningly and seemingly meekly. The Pupil saunters in with faux-arrogance, assuring the Professor that she wishes to take ‘all the doctorates’ – brave indeed! What begins with nervous pleasantries and youthful stupidity soon descends into an intense barrage of pseudo-education and violence through words.

Louise Ayrton as The Pupil and Rox Middleton as The Professor. (Photo Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

Rox Middleton‘s Professor is the triumph of the piece. Maintaining an energy and constant schizophrenic flitting between anxiety and anger with a stamina of which many actors would be envious, she manages to cope with the verbose script – she trips over her words only ever so slightly and rescues it so well that many would not have noticed at all.

It would not be a surprise to me if she had always wanted to play this part: she is convincing, frightening and often disarmingly funny. There are shades and depth to her performance, taking us on a believable journey to a nihilistic conclusion that could easily have ruined the play in the hands of a less capable actor. That this character was written as a man is entirely irrelevant, with Rox making it her own.

Dara Solina Homer as The Maid. (Photo Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

Unfortunately, Louise Ayrton’s Pupil is overshadowed here. In the first half, her naïvety and stupidity (the character’s, that is) come across as unbelievable. Her attempts to charm her Professor and her French-schoolgirl cheek fall somewhat flat. Be it directorial or otherwise, she does not appear to have the control or understanding of her words that is often the key to richness when performing absurdist drama such as this.

Where she shone, however, was in the second half when her character is crumbling under the weight of the Professor’s lexical abuse. Louise was able to fully let go in the moments that required it and sold her agony, writhing on the floor at times in a completely convincing manner. Many actors are unable to abandon themselves in this way but she manages it very well. Without spoiling the ending, the catastrophic finale would not have been nearly as good if it weren’t for her giving her all.

Toothache? (Photo Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

Dara Solina Homer‘s Maid is a small part which she plays well. With small parts, the key is often to make something of them and I feel the direction here of Zoe Barnes let Dara down. The lines her character is given are clearly meant for a charmingly common, potentially older woman – both qualities, it seems, which Dara was not instructed to embody. If a different direction is sought for a character, it needs to be with purpose and depth – both of which she does not appear to have been given any directorial resources for. The result is that she feels perhaps miscast, but she does earn the few laughs afforded to her character.

‘Frightening and often disarmingly funny’ – Rox Middleton. (Photo Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

Overall, Zoe Barnes should be proud of this production, as should the cast. This would be a great introduction to Ionesco’s work, and is worth an hour of your time if you are passing Pembroke anytime soon.

3/5 stars

(You can take a look at more of Johannes’ photos here.)